Few, if anyone, could have seen this coming.
Kent State in the College World Series? Especially a year after losing four players to the Major League Baseball Draft, including top pitcher Andrew Chafin, the 44th overall player taken by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Even Golden Flashes coach Scott Stricklin didn’t expect it. But despite being a predominantly young team without a superstar player, the Golden Flashes have won a program-best 46 games, including a 21-game winning streak, and are poised to play on college baseball’s biggest stage.
“I’d like to say I did, but we lost so much talent,” Stricklin said by phone Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the Flashes beat host Oregon 3-2 in the deciding Game 3 in Eugene, Ore. “I felt confident we’d compete for the [Mid-American Conference] title. But no, I can’t say I saw this coming.”
There’s an old adage in baseball that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. The Flashes, now ranked eighth, proved to be pretty good this season, but luck has certainly played a big part in the postseason run that has them playing Arkansas (44-20) at 5 p.m. Saturday in the opening round of the CWS.
Big and little bounces have gone the Flashes’ way. First there was Evan Campbell’s controversial home run that might or might not have cleared the proper marking that sent KSU past Kentucky in the regional. Then there was Jimmy Rider’s game-winning bloop double that was lost in the setting sun in Monday’s super regional clincher against the Ducks.
“To win 21 straight like that, it feels like we’ve had a lot of luck involved,” Rider, the MAC’s all-time hits leader, said by phone. “We’ve certainly had a lot of things go our way. It kind of went against us Sunday night (in a 3-2 loss to Oregon), but besides that, so many of the breaks have gone our way.”
Stricklin, a former KSU catcher (1992-95), knows the part a little luck can play in team’s season of dreams.
“We said that in the dugout Saturday,” he said. “We got a call in the crazy game we won 7-6 [over Oregon] and I looked at Derek Toadvine and said, ‘You know what, Derek? Somebody wants us to go to Omaha.’ ”
Perhaps even more surprising is that the Flashes have managed to advance this far without a bona fide superstar, instead utilizing a collective team effort.
“I don’t think we have any superstars on our team,” Stricklin said. “I was asked about that in regional play. They said, ‘you guys aren’t star-studded.’ I said ‘No, but we have a bunch of good baseball players.’ And that’s what we are; a group of 34 really good players who play the game hard and play the game right. Also, we’re all from Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. We’re all hometown kids and that’s what this team is: hard-working, blue-collar guys that represent Northeast Ohio.”
Despite losing top-notch talent from last year’s team, the remaining group’s desire to atone for last year’s inability to get out of regional play remained strong from the start of the season.
“I think it’s been building with this team for the last year,” Stricklin said. “When we lost to Texas in regional play, it was really tough to handle. The kids really wanted to get back and have another crack at it.”
Still, getting this far was unexpected, even if the idea of finally reaching Omaha has always been treated as the main goal during Stricklin’s tenure at KSU.
“We all talk about Omaha,” he said. “Every single college baseball coach, at some point in his speech, Omaha comes up. The city of Omaha is the mecca of college baseball. So, we’ve talked about it as a team and our players have dreamed about it. But to actually be here, it just hasn’t settled in quite yet.”
But it will. After everything the Flashes have been through this season, it’s hard to imagine any stage being too big for these underdogs.
“[TD Ameritrade Park] is a $200 million dollar stadium,” Stricklin said of the home of the CWS. “It’s one of the nicest baseball stadiums in the world. I think that’s when it’ll all start to settle in, when the guys just go ‘oh my gosh, what have we done?’ [Today] when we first practice there, that’s when it’ll really hit us.”